Twenty-three Russian diplomats who were ordered out of Britain in response to the poisoning of a former spy with a deadly nerve agent arrived home on March 20, as London decided not to impose further sanctions on Moscow for now.
The diplomats, who Prime Minister Theresa May said were spies, had been given a week to leave Britain as tension mounted over what officials say was the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II.
Three buses with diplomatic license plates left the Russian Embassy in London in the morning as embassy workers waved, Reuters reported. The diplomats boarded a plane to Moscow's Vnukovo airport, where it landed later in the day.
A patriotic imperial-era Russian march played as the buses carrying diplomats and their families left for the airport, state-run Russian news agency TASS reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was not scheduled to meet with the returning diplomats, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
"It seems there are no such meetings on [Putin's] schedule at the moment," Peskov told reporters when asked.
If Putin were to meet with the diplomats, he would be thumbing his nose at Britain amid heightened tension over the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33.
Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in critical condition after they were found collapsed on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.
Britain says they were exposed to a Soviet-designed military-grade nerve agent from a series known as Novichok, and blames Moscow for the attack. Russia denies involvement.
In addition to expelling the Russian diplomats, Britain has suspended high-level bilateral contacts with Moscow and announced that British ministers and the royal family will not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.
Russia responded on March 17 by expelling 23 British diplomats, canceling an agreement to reopen the British Consulate in St. Petersburg, and ordering the closure of the British Council -- which promotes cultural ties between the countries -- in Russia.
The British government decided on March 20 not to hit Moscow with further sanctions but was keeping possible new measures under consideration.
After May met with top officials and advisers on national security, her spokesman said on March 20 that Britain had taken action to track people who “could be engaged in activity that threatens the security of the U.K. and of our allies."
“This includes strict checks by border officials on private flights,” the spokesman said.
"There are other measures that the government and security officials are actively considering and stand ready to deploy at any time," May said at the National Security Council meeting, according to the BBC.
The poisoning has added to already high tensions between the West and Russia, where the long-ruling Putin won a new six-year term in a landslide in a March 18 election marred by alleged fraud and what international observers said was the lack of a "real choice."
In a show of solidarity with Britain on March 19, the European Union and NATO strongly condemned the poisoning, which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called an "unacceptable breach of international norms and rules."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Russia must explain the incident and stressed the importance of the EU acting as a whole in response.
"Serious information suggests that Russia has something to do with this. It's now up to Russia to prove that that's not the case," Merkel said.
"We agreed to say that the European Union needs to provide a firm response, and not just a symbolic one," Morawiecki said. "The Russian aggressor needs to know that it can't allow itself to attack a NATO member."
EU foreign ministers issued a statement saying the bloc "takes extremely seriously the U.K. government's assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible."
"The lives of many citizens were threatened by this reckless and illegal act," the EU ministers said.
The bloc "expresses its unqualified solidarity with the U.K. and its support, including for the U.K.'s efforts to bring those responsible for this crime to justice," it said.
Novichok Creator Speaks Up
Putin flatly rejected Britain's accusations hours after polls closed in the Russian election, telling reporters that Russia "has no such" weapon.
On March 20, Peskov repeated Russia's denial, saying that Russia had destroyed all its chemical weapons and "has no chemical weapons stockpiles in any form."
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had invited all ambassadors to Russia to a meeting with experts on March 21 to hear “Russia's views” about the poisoning.
The meeting would be with "leaders and experts from the [Foreign Ministry’s] department charged with nonproliferation and arms-control issues," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Zakharova suggested on March 14 that the most likely source of the substance was Britain itself or the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, or the United States.
The Czech and Swedish foreign ministries summoned Russia's envoys over the allegation, which Prague on March 20 called “a typical example of information manipulation in public domain, where news of a highly speculative character is released without providing any evidence.”
Russia's ambassador to Stockholm, Victor Tatarintsev, told the daily Expressen that Zakharova’s suggestion was “just a comment, a guess, not an official explanation."
Slovak officials have also rejected Russia’s claim.
Meanwhile, a Russian scientist said that he had helped create Novichok-series nerve agents, contradicting Russian officials who have said that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union ever had such a program.
Leonid Rink told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that it is "hard to imagine that Russians were involved," suggesting that Russian operatives would not have carried out such an attack without killing the targets immediately.
"Such outrageous incompetence...is just laughable and unacceptable," Rink said. He also said it would not make sense for Russian agents to use a chemical that could be traced to Russia.
"There are lots of more suitable substances," he said. "To fire [the equivalent of] a powerful rocket at someone who is not a threat and to miss would be the height of idiocy."
Asked if he was one of Novichok's creators, Rink told RIA Novosti: "Yes. It was the basis for my doctoral dissertation."
He said he had worked at a Soviet chemicals weapons research facility in the town of Shikhany, in Russia's Saratov region, for 27 years until the early 1990s.
He said Novichok was not a single substance but a system of using chemical weapons and that it had been called 'Novichok-5' by the Soviet Union.
"A big group of specialists in Shikhany and in Moscow worked on Novichok -- on the technologies, toxicologies, and biochemistry," he said. "In the end, we achieved very good results."
May rejected Russia's denials on May 19, saying: "I am clear that what we have seen shows that there is no other conclusion but the Russia state is culpable for what happened.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called on Russia to “shed light on the responsibilities for the unacceptable attack” in Salisbury in a phone call with Putin.
He also urged Moscow to “firmly regain control of any programs that have not been declared” to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said a statement from the French president’s office.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said on March 20 that the international chemical weapons watchdog had deployed experts to Britain to collect samples, adding that the results of the analysis will take "three weeks ahead at least."
Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of treason in 2006 after a court found that he passed the identities of Russian intelligence agents to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents uncovered in the United States, including Anna Chapman, in one of the biggest spy swaps since the Cold War.